VIROQUA — The Driftless Cafe, a farm-to-table restaurant that Luke and Ruthie Zahm bought in 2013 and expanded last year, is drawing customers from miles away.
“Some of them come from a long ways away,” including people who live in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis, said Luke, who manages the restaurant.
Ruthie helps run the cafe at 118 W. Court St. in downtown Viroqua, but she also is a labor and delivery nurse at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse.
The cafe is known for its creative cuisine and for using locally produced ingredients. Zahm estimated three-fourths of the ingredients used at the cafe are grown in the region.
Even in the winter, the cafe purchases locally grown produce — which at that time of year is likely to be grown inside greenhouses or hoop houses.
The cafe buys products from more than 60 farms in the region. “We spent nearly $100,000 last year” on items from those farms, Zahm said.
“This restaurant is about celebrating local farmers and local food,” Zahm said.
The cafe was buying local ingredients even before the Zahms bought it. But Luke said he and his wife are buying even more locally produced ingredients today, and they have expanded the cafe’s menus.
When they bought the restaurant in July 2013, Zahm said, “I thought the place was a little small” as it could seat only about 44 people. “I didn’t know if people were ready for the elevated style of cuisine that we knew we had to do because of the size of the space.”
But word spread, which prompted the Zahms to buy, extensively remodel and expand into a building next door, which increased the seating capacity to about 90.
“We needed more room,” Zahm said of the reason for the expansion. “We were having waits of up to two hours to get in” on weekends. “People were driving here from all over the place. It was flattering, but people will do that (endure long waits) only so many times” before they quit coming.
The cafe’s lunch and dinner menus change daily, depending on what local ingredients are available.
For dinner, Zahm said, “We always have four set entrees, and one is always vegetarian. We also have three small-play entrees” that are smaller portions.
On one recent evening, the dinner menu included tenderloin, pork ribs, tea-rubbed lamb, morel mushroom risotto, salmon, asparagus and beef. The menus identify where the ingredients came from.
“The lunch menu is a little less formal,” Zahm said. “It’s delicious food,” such as sandwiches, hamburgers made from grass-fed beef and pizza.
Much of the cafe’s food is organic.
Luke, who has been a full-time chef since 2003, was raised near La Farge. Ruthie grew up in Viroqua.
They bought the Driftless Café in 2013 after he had been a chef in the Madison area for more than 10 years.
As part of his job as a chef at Epic Systems software in Verona, Luke traveled to recruit talent to come and cook at Epic’s employee dining facilities.
On one such trip, Zahm was at the American Bounty Restaurant at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 2010, when he opened the menu and saw four ingredients listed as coming from the Driftless Region of Wisconsin.
He realized that some of the food ingredients produced in the region “were being recognized as some of the best in the world,” Zahm said.
“That’s when I realized that I needed to do this at home,” he said.
He and Ruthie returned to the area in 2011. Luke worked at The Waterfront Restaurant & Tavern in La Crosse and at the Viroqua Food Co-op before he and Ruthie bought the Driftless Cafe.
A few weeks ago, the cafe was named Best New Business in Viroqua by the Viroqua Chamber Main Street organization.
And in April, the cafe finished second among 37 applicants in the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s Main Street Makeover Contest. The cafe is slated to receive a $5,000 cash prize that the Zahms plan to use for additional building improvements and for adding an outdoor patio.
“This restaurant is about celebrating local farmers and local food.” Luke Zahm, who owns The Driftless Cafe with his wife, Ruthie